Before shoegazing was a hashtag to use beneath a post about boots or shoes, it was a term associated with a loose grouping of mostly British and Irish bands in the late-1980s and early-1990s who were invested in exploring the possibilities of soundscapes through the distortion and modulation of guitar sounds through the use of effects pedals. When these musicians performed, they were more likely to be seen gazing at their shoes than they were looking into crowd. Hence, the alternative music press dubbed them shoegazers.
These are bands that you may not know, but whose influence on the music that came after you would almost certainly recognize. This, however, is a conversation about boots. And music. And adventures in listening. This is about the ways in which an Indonesian kid with an iconoclastic taste in music became the “Priest of Sagara,” a moniker that he says is really just a joke. I first came to know Bagus Satrio Wickasono, the legitimate genius behind Sagara Bootmaker, when he posted an Instagram story of himself playing a My Bloody Valentine song on acoustic guitar and we struck up a conversation about music…and, naturally, about boots.
Bagus is the owner, designer, social media wizard, and affable point-of-contact for Sagara, which produces astonishingly well-built made-to-order boots and shoes in the brand’s workshop in Bandung, the capital city of West Java province in Indonesia, about two hours east of Jakarta. It’s also the center of traditional bootmaking in Indonesia, a craft that was picked up during the country’s time as a Dutch colony and which has been carried on long after by local craftsmen and artisans—you can read a comprehensive guide to the crucial Indonesian bootmakers right here.
Sagara is one of the bigger operations and one of the longest running in Bandung. And Bagus is an absolutely fascinating man.
Also Alden, his Doberman, is incredible.
James Meetze: Hey, Bagus. Thanks for taking the time to talk with me. We’ll talk about boots eventually, but I’m more curious about getting to know you, about how your other interests led you to where you are now, and how those interests continue to influence what you do with Sagara. Did you grow up in Bandung?
Bagus Satrio: Thank you for the opportunity. Like I said earlier I’m excited to talk about things besides boots!
I was born and raised in Bandung, one of the Indonesian cities that was known for its crafts and youth movements. Most of the earlier indie bands and local clothing brands were born here. I would describe this city as slow-paced, surrounded by mountains, and home to a lot of small-scale clothing manufacturers as well as large garment factories. These small local brands have easy access to the production facilities, and they sometimes get materials from the large factory overstock and waste. This access to material and production led to the growth of the creative industry. But the materials were not always the best quality, since they came from the fast-fashion industry.
The clothing, music, and extreme sports—skateboard & BMX—scenes, alongside the custom culture—old bikes & cars—fostered these small industries and inspired small designers and producers to seek out better quality and custom materials. Bandung is the capital of the creative industry in Indonesia. Some of the local bands even go on to play international music festivals, like Speaker First, Mocca, Burgerkill, and many more. You should give them a listen.
James: When did you first become interested in music? What was the music scene like for a young guy in Bandung, and what made you gravitate toward these more alternative bands?
MORE INDONESIAN BOOT COVERAGE
Bagus: I started to buy cassettes in the 5th or 6th-grade elementary school, but it was like only MTV compilations and some local bands. I think my deep connection with music first came at junior high school. I went to the record store looking for Korn’s Issues album that had just been released, but instead, the Rage Against the Machine self-titled album (1992) caught my eye, and I bought it. And after that album, I felt an energy I hadn’t heard before and started digging more hip-hop and rap/rock music like Downset & Cypress Hill. The internet was not common in that era in Bandung, so our points of reference were only from MTV & magazines.
I spent my teenage years delving into those kinds of music, and it wasn’t until I first had my heart broken in college that I began seeking out different music. It was 2004. I started listening to The Cure, a band that I hated in high school, because I thought sad music was not manly (I know I was wrong). I started listening to their albums Wish, Disintegration, and Bloodflowers. I loved the complexity of the music and Robert Smith’s voice and lyrics.
Then, my friends that studied in Denmark, brought back some weird new music. It’s was Sigur Ros! I had never heard or felt that kind of emotion in music, even with lyrics that I couldn’t understand. From that point, I started digging into post-rock, and bands like Explosions in the Sky, Godspeed You! Black Emperor, and Mogwai. Along the way, I discovered the genius, Justin K. Broadrick. From that, I can’t tear my ears from post-metal/ambiance music like Jesu, Godflesh, Neurosis, Tool, Isis, etc. Alternative bands like Smashing Pumpkins and A Perfect Circle were also part of that moment.
I studied at Institut Teknologi Nasional (ITENAS) in the Art & Design Faculty. Some friends and I started a band in college playing post-rock music, but we never made it onto a big stage—we played only for fun. Every week we played a small concert called Musik Sore that facilitated small bands like us to get a stage. Most of the legendary Bandung Indie Bands were born at this college. I feel truly blessed to grow in that creative community, where I got space to develop really diverse interests, while most of the people out there in Indonesia think I have weird taste. For the past few years, really since the growth of Instagram, independent music has started becoming more mainstream among the Indonesian youth. It’s a different world than it was in the early-2000s when I started liking music.
James: You studied design at ITENAS and played music for fun on the side. I’m thinking, too, about one of the main adjectives I would use to describe a lot of the music you’ve mentioned: atmospheric. How do you think both your education in design and this atmospheric music you were listening to, as well as the atmosphere and environment of Bandung, have influenced your design aesthetic and its evolution over time?
Bagus: I’ll tell you, before I went to college, I was one stupid kid who hated to study. I was also the kind of kid, who, when teachers forced me to learn something, I resisted. I didn’t know my passions at all. The only subject that caught my interest was history. I was at the second-worst public high school in Bandung, and when graduation came, I didn’t know where to go. Then a friend told me about a short drawing course and exam that could get me into Art & Design College. I was interested in design—really, I liked to draw cars—so I took the drawing course, and I was accepted into ITENAS Art & Design Faculty.
James: When you were starting out, what kind of things were you most interested in designing? Cars? Were you more of a graphic designer or a product designer?
Bagus: I studied to hone my skills as an automotive designer for the first two years in college. I studied 3D modeling, both computers & clay, and I really enjoyed it. That was until I did a road trip to my grandfather’s hometown in Jogjakarta, which is the capital of traditional arts and crafts in Indonesia. It’s a city that has a slow pace like Bandung, but more ethnic—Jogjakarta is still ruled by a Sultan, though Indonesia is a republic country. The people there still hold very traditional values.
On the way back home to Bandung, I saw a very large statue of Kwan Im (Guan Yin), the Buddhist Goddess of Compassion. I began thinking, the blood that runs through my body is a craftsman’s blood. Our ancestors were the ones who built the beautiful Borobudur Temple, who create Batik fabric, who made Angklung and Gamelan instruments—instruments that would be cool for post-rock music—and the other Indonesian traditional crafts. Our ancestors were not rocket scientists. They’re not Tesla or Thomas Edison. They made crafts. Our ancestors were some of the best craftsmen in the world, and in that moment, I felt my responsibility to continue that tradition, though maybe through a different medium.
James: You had a revelation. But did it become clear to you then what you wanted to make? What space you wanted to create?
Bagus: It was not immediate. Several weeks later, I was still sitting with my confusion, deciding my future, asking myself, “who I want to be,” and “what kind of craft do I want to focus on?” My friend asked me to go to Cibaduyut, the center of shoemaking in Bandung. He wanted to make a shoe for his college project. It was when I was there that I was mesmerized by the process, and since I always enjoyed buying shoes—and jackets—since junior high school, I decided then to focus my project on shoemaking. I WANT TO MAKE MY OWN SHOE!
James: I love this story, Bagus. The Odyssey of it. I feel like this restlessness, this sense of exploration that led you to discovering your passion is integral to who you are. You’ve created a whole brand identity that really stands out among Indonesian bootmakers in that it’s more than just your product…you’ve created an atmosphere.
View this post on Instagram
One of the things I appreciate most about this atmosphere, about you, and about Sagara, is that, via your Instagram stories, you take us with you into your world. Of course, the product is there, because you’re wearing it, but you’re riding a motorcycle into the mountains and through the jungle and walking across rivers, in your beautifully patinated Trailmasters. You explore to hang out with your friends and cook food in this atmosphere that is so aligned to the Sagara brand. It’s like your brand is really just an extension of how you live your life. Did these passions—your adventurousness and Sagara—develop together or did one come before the other?
Bagus: My father was always a deep enthusiast of vintage cars, he loves adventure—he’d go climb a mountain and go off-roading in an old Jeep when he was young—now he’s 70 years old. He always wanted me to be like him, ever since I was a kid, and I was, of course, resistant to his expectations. I grew up feeling that I didn’t want to be like him. I wanted to find my own path, and music and art were things that he wasn’t an expert in.
But for the past several years, I realized that what my father did in his adventures when he was young was just a good way to enjoy life. And so I started to have hobbies like him. Funny, right? But I only discovered those specific hobbies after I started Sagara. I can’t compare with my father, though. He was doing far more extreme things: bushcraft, several days on the mountain, off-road, etc. I’m only hiking, having picnics, and cross-country motorcycling. Even in his 60s, my father had far better physique than I did at 20 years old. I salute him.
James: We sound a lot alike. I was also resistant to what was expected of me—mostly, to what my father expected of me. He was an officer in the Navy. I was more interested in ideas and exploration than his ideal of masculinity. I was a mediocre student. At least until I discovered poetry. Then, I began to excel in literature courses, because it’s what made sense to me. Of course, when you fall in love with literature, you fall in love with history, too. It’s pretty easy to see your interest in history reflected in what you do with Sagara.
Bagus: Yeah, you know that’s exactly the feeling.
James:This is starting to make sense, too, in that it was traveling, exploring your country and your heritage that inspired you to design and craft footwear. What was the first shoe you made? How long did it take you to master the craft of cordwaining before you decided to actually start Sagara?
Bagus: My first shoe to learn was a Parkour shoe I made for the coursework. I didn’t make it but designed it and had it made at a workshop at Cibaduyut. It’s hard to say how long it took me to learn to make a shoe, because I treated that as a hobby, and I didn’t focus only on shoemaking. I studied the process and business management at the same time. I’ve never made a full shoe from start to finish by myself, since I have trouble operating a sewing machine. I have bad hands and foot coordination. I learned the bottom process: lasting until soling. In Indonesia, it’s very rare for a person who can do both upper and bottom processes. Usually, we focus only on one department. I don’t remember the first shoe I made, but it was cemented. I only lasted the upper and slapped a sole on it. The simplest shoe to make.
James: That makes sense to specialize in a particular stage of the process. And I have to note that both the upper stitching and the welt stitching—including the Norvegese chainstitch—on my Sagara Cordmasters is some of the most clean and accurate I’ve seen anywhere. What does it mean to you that you’re actively preserving this particular tradition? How do you see yourself, and these other younger guys making heritage footwear in Indonesia as keeping the traditions alive, while also advancing them?
Bagus: For me, preserving doesn’t only mean continuing to do this craft. We need to transmit the knowledge to the younger generation. The baton needs to keep being passed. That’s why most Sagara artisans didn’t have a shoemaking background before they came to work for me. We have people from all different backgrounds: a technician, a farmer, a fresh graduate from high school who unfortunately can’t continue to college, and even a car wash guy. We always try to transfer our knowledge.
There are a lot of unfortunate people in Indonesia, and I offer them a job that they can take pride in. Some of Sagara’s former artisans have gone on to work for other small brands, and some even opened their own shoe workshops. One of whom has become a well-respected boss with a lot of artisans in Cibaduyut. He might do the cheap shoes that we in this community don’t really respect, but he created jobs for people. To me, that’s the best thing, contributing to the vitality of our community. I am very proud of him.
James: It sounds like you’re like the father and the professor of the boot making community. High Priest, indeed! Speaking of fathers, it’s interesting that now, after my father has been gone for four years, I’m so drawn to your Officer Shoe, which is incredibly close to the shoes he wore in the photos we have of him in uniform from the 50s and 60s. I can’t wait for the Sagara x Stitchdown Bandung Derby in Cloe mahogany horserump. Where did your obsession—if we can call it an obsession—with U.S. military styles originate?
Bagus: Good to hear that our Officer shoe gives you that nostalgic feeling. You must be very proud of him, and I am happy to know that. Honestly, I can’t recall when my obsession with World War-era garments began, but my grandfather served in the Army. I spent my childhood living with him, and I wanted to be in the Army, but I think I’m too skinny to be a soldier. You know, most people that know me are probably thinking that I must have watched some “heavy war movie” with a great storyline and brilliant cinematography. I love watching World War movies because I enjoy seeing the costumes and studying the reproduction garments in them. Red Tails was my favorite movie, not because of its storyline, but because I love seeing various flight jackets with unique paintings on them.
James: What is your favorite pair of shoes or boots that you’ve produced at Sagara? What design are you most proud of?
Bagus: As a father who gave birth to them from scratch, starting from last design, pattern, and material configuration, I love all of Sagara’s articles. But, yes, sometimes there’s a favorite child among others. The Imperial (#SagaraImperial) is my favorite design, since it was a showcase on how one firm line can have a strong impact. During a quick sketch, I just modified the top line of a classic derby boot. I made one expressive line and I loved the results so much that I put it into production.
The Imperial was first released around seven years ago and has been my best seller for several years. Lately, though, their popularity has fallen, due to the boom of lace-to-toe / work boot style such as the Cordmaster.
James: Since you and I have been discussing a GMTO makeup in an aubergine horserump that honors our shared taste in shoegaze music—thinking of the purple/pink colors of My Bloody Valentine’s classic album, Loveless—I wonder how working with both individual customers and group makeups allows you to stay interested and involved in the creative design process, making unique boots and shoes based on designs you’ve already been producing? Is doing a GMTO exciting for you?
Bagus: Let’s do this! A shoegaze-inspired boot would be a dream project for a shoegazer. How cool would it be if we could get Kevin Shields (primary songwriter for MBV) involved? I love working with our customers to design boots that reflect their personality and creativity.
James: Are there any new designs you’ve got in the works? Is there anything new we can look forward to from Sagara?
Bagus: I am not working on any new designs lately, other than that I really want to continue my motorcycle boot project. But as we will move into a bigger space in the next couple of months, so I need to be realistic about my priorities. The Bandung Derbies will be done soon.
James: Thank you, so much, Bagus. I’m excited for readers to get to know the man behind Sagara. That is, after all, what makes this hobby-slash-obsession of ours so rewarding: making friends with shared interests.
Bagus: Glad I can be part of your day!
Note: Bagus and I go on to talk about ghosts, death rituals, and the voices that inhabit us, but that’s a conversation for another world.